Updated at 13:33,29-11-2021

Lukashenko says Belarusian troops may have helped refugees reach Europe

Andrew Roth in Moscow, The Guardian

Lukashenko says Belarusian troops may have helped refugees reach Europe
The Belarusian president, Alexander Lukashenko, made the admission in an interview with the BBC's Moscow correspondent, Steve Rosenberg. Photograph: Nikolai Petrov/Belta/Tass
The Belarusian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has acknowledged that his troops probably helped Middle Eastern asylum seekers cross into Europe, in the clearest admission yet that he engineered the new migrant crisis on the border with the EU.

In an interview with the BBC at his presidential palace in Minsk, he said it was “absolutely possible” that his troops helped migrants across the frontier into Poland.

“Maybe someone helped them. I won’t even look into this,” he said.

He denied being responsible for the migrant crisis but admitted to letting asylum seekers through Belarus to the EU’s borders “because they’re not coming to my country, they’re going to yours”.

Belarusian state media teased the interview on Friday as Lukashenko has sought to showcase his direct contacts with western leaders and media despite his increasing international isolation. “You know perfectly well it’s going to be interesting,” a state media Telegram channel wrote, saying Lukashenko had spoken with a “major western news outlet”. Representatives of the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya criticised the interview as “giving the floor to a dictator”, the broadcaster reported. Lukashenko also gave an interview to CNN in September.

In the BBC interview, Lukashenko also admitted that his security services severely beat people who had been imprisoned for protesting against tainted elections last year.

“OK, OK, I admit it, I admit it. People were beaten in the Okrestina detention centre. But there were police beaten up too and you didn’t show this,” he said.

Human Rights Watch last year said it had spoken to detainees who described “beatings, prolonged stress positions, electric shocks, and, in at least one case, rape, and said they saw other detainees suffer the same or worse abuse. They had serious injuries, including broken bones, cracked teeth, skin wounds, electrical burns, and mild traumatic brain injuries. Some had kidney damage”.

EU governments have refused to recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus because of the crackdown on the opposition last year. Earlier this week, he had his first direct contact with an EU leader since the election when he spoke by telephone with Angela Merkel about humanitarian aid for the thousands of asylum seekers trapped at the border.

The outdoor migrant camps on the EU border were emptied of people this week as Belarus moved thousands of asylum seekers to a logistics centre near the border. Videos showed that small fights had broken out at the centre, which was reported to be overcrowded. Lukashenko on Friday ordered his ministers to improve security at the centre, his press service said.

The Council of Europe commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović, on Friday called for Poland to allow human rights groups and journalists to access the border region to “end human suffering and violations of human rights”. Poland has declared a state of emergency on its borders with Belarus, giving police extraordinary authority to expel refugees without reviewing applications for asylum.

This article was amended on 20 November 2021. In an earlier version, Dunja Mijatović was described as the EU’s human rights commissioner, rather than the Council of Europe’s human rights commissioner.